By Heather Hollingsworth
At some schools in the Tampa Bay area, students use foam rollers and vibrating balls to massage their muscles while working toward strength and flexibility goals. It’s all part of a new athletic curriculum from quarterback Tom Brady, whose vision for healthy living powers a fitness empire.
The agreement with Pinellas County, Fla., schools marks a foray into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar’s education and his methods — including some that have been criticized as pseudoscience.
Physical education experts have raised questions about the suitability of the approach for school-age children. But the program — and its association with the seven-time Super Bowl champion — has sparked students’ interest in fitness and nutrition, others say.
“My legs are much looser and don’t weigh me down as much,” said Antoine James, an eighth grader. “It really helps.”
A pilot embedded parts of the program into fitness and health classes in 10 middle and high schools in the 96,000-student district. The TB12 Foundation, the charitable arm of Brady’s fitness business, foots the bill to train district employees and provide them with equipment.
The marketing boost for TB12 is of course free of charge.
Adults adopting the “TB12 method,” as Brady described it in a 2017 book, can meet with a trainer at one of his company’s training centers for $200 an hour. Its product line includes a plant-based protein powder, electrolytes, and vibratory rollers that retail for $160.
“I’m sure one of the benefits is helping students develop better exercise habits and physical fitness habits,” said Karen Rommelfanger, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Emory University. “But is it also starting to attract another generation of consumers to your product?”
Pinellas County plans to expand to remaining middle and high schools next year. If all goes well, the Brady Foundation hopes to use the program as a model for other districts.
“Today, we’re mostly focusing on slightly older customers,” said Grant Shriver, president and CEO of TB12, where the average customer is in their 40s. “It just gives us a kind of vision of how we could just reach out to more people.”
The TB12 Foundation’s first educational partnership began in 2020 with Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts, where Brady played for the New England Patriots. TB12 brought a dozen athletes from the district to its training center for free. This effort later expanded to Malden Public Schools, also in the Boston area.
“I grew up lifting heavy weights and you measure your strength by how much you can bench press and how much you can squat. And that’s completely different,” said Kevin Karo, athletic director of Brockton Public Schools. His district has now contracted to use some of the TB12 staff as strength and conditioning coaches for student athletes.
Most of Brady’s advice is fairly mainstream, including an emphasis on positive attitude, good nutrition and getting enough sleep. But some of his instructions were met with skepticism. In his book, he famously attributed his tendency not to get sunburned to his high water intake. His trainer, Alex Guerrero, was under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission before joining Brady over unsubstantiated claims that a dietary supplement he was promoting could cure concussions.
Brady, 45, describes his approach as a departure from the lift-heavy gym culture. He instead advocates exercise bands and something he calls “giveness,” which includes an emphasis on flexibility and massage.
“I feel like everything I’ve learned over the course of 23 years in football has enabled me and will continue to enable me to help people in different ways,” Brady said Thursday. “I think it’s really important to start young and educate people about what’s working, as opposed to what’s always been.”
Athletic trainers are moving toward a model that incorporates a mix of strength training, flexibility and balance exercises, said Mike Fantigrassi, senior director of product development for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, which certifies trainers. But he said he had concerns that the word “give” was being taught in schools as if it were scientifically proven.
“It’s a term they made up,” he said. “Some of these things are not rooted in good science. And when you bring a curriculum to schools, I think it should be rooted in good science.”
Brady is one of the greatest athletes in the world but has no experience teaching children, said Terri Drain, past president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators.
“I’m just a little concerned that a school district this size would pick up this celebrity program,” said Drain, who runs a nonprofit that provides professional development for health and physical education teachers.
In terms of diet, Brady advises against foods from the nightshade family, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, due to inflammation issues. Experts like Eric Rimm say many of Brady’s dietary recommendations are extreme and not backed by a “huge scientific base.”
But Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said there could be benefits.
“If you get rid of the average eighth grade American’s diet and go to what they eat, yes, that’s a lot healthier,” he said. “This is fantastic.”
One benefit is that the name Brady cheers students up in class, said Allison Swank, an eighth-grade wellness teacher and track and field coach in Pinellas County.
“They definitely know who he is and it’s exciting for them to be able to relate to his program what we’re going to do,” she said.
In pilot courses, students take baseline assessments to assess areas such as their strength, conditioning and flexibility. They then set goals they want to pursue to improve, said Ashley Grimes, a pre-K-12 health and physical education specialist.
She said counties across the county have come forward asking what the program is about and if they could do it too.
The program doesn’t use Brady’s book as a textbook, pointed out Ben Wieder, a Pinellas Education Foundation member who uses TB12 himself and approached the foundation about bringing the program to the district.
“Tom Brady eats avocado ice cream. For example, we don’t teach eating avocado ice cream,” Wieder said. Most of the science-based elements of the curriculum conform to Florida educational standards, he said. “I think if you would go through the book. You’re probably talking about 90, 95% of the content being universally accepted.”
Associated Press reporter Rob Maaddi contributed from Tampa, Florida.
The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.